Thoughts on Program Design, Part 1

January 10, 2012

We’d all like for our strength training programs to be effective and safe. This allows us to make gains from training and avoid wasting our time. To do that, strength training follows several fundamental principles. This post going to begin by describing those principles. The next post will cover different approaches to organizing a strength training program. Finally, we’ll explore how to put everything together and include several examples.

Principles of exercise
There are five fundamental principles of exercise that you need to be familiar with before designing an effect strength training program. These are:
1. Specificity
2. Overload
3. Progression
4. Individualization
5. Reversibility
6. Exercise Order
The principle of specificity basically says that you get what you train for. In more complicated terms, the body adapts to exercise in the manner in which it is exercised. This applies to the muscles you train, the speed at which you train, the energy systems that you train, and the movements that you train.
The overload principle states that you have to make the exercise more difficult in order to make the body continue to adapt, doing the same thing every day will not enable you to make any gains from your training. This is done (making sure that you observe specificity) by increasing the weight, increasing the number of repetitions, decreasing the rest, changing the order of the exercises, or by changing the exercises.

Exercise is safest and most effective when it is progressive, i.e. it is done over a series of steps. This means developing fitness and good technique before progressing to more complicated workout schemes and exercises.

The principle of individualization is meant to remind you that everyone is different and this means that everyone responds to exercises and workouts differently. This is why cookie cutter workouts don’t work. For example, the length of your limbs, make-up of your muscles, insertion angles of your tendons, orientation of your muscle fibers, and the length of your muscle fibers are all things that impact how you experience exercises and workout programs – and you cannot do anything about many of the factors that I just listed.

The principle of reversibility states that the gains you make from exercise go away when you stop. This is because it is expensive to maintain all that extra muscle mass, so when your body doesn’t need it anymore it sheds it quickly. When you stop exercising your muscle fibers shrink, your energy stores dissipate, you lose bone mass, you gain fat, you lose flexibility, you lose speed, and all this takes about three days to begin!

There are a number of notable exceptions to the principle of exercise order. In general, however, those exercises that involve speed, power, or multiple joints should be done towards the beginning of the workout. Those exercises that are more isolation in nature should be done towards the end of the workout. The idea being that the more complicated and difficult exercises should be done at the beginning when you are still fresh.

The principles of exercise listed above are crucial to a successful strength training program. Programs are typically organized to accomplish one of three things; hypertrophy, strength, or power. The next part will discuss those approaches.